As ash clouds fell, I went wild for the forest
With sublime hotels and its proximity to the coast, the New Forest is holiday heaven.
Dappled sunshine illuminating the New Forest, a perfect location for a spring break
As friends' plans for exotic holidays were dashed by volcanic ash clouds, it was hard not to feel smug as we strolled, dog in tow, through the dappled sunshine of the New Forest on a perfect spring weekend. When heaven lies on the coastal fringes of Hampshire and Dorset, who needs to take to the skies?
It is no surprise that the odd coven of white witches has settled in this corner of ancient Wessex - and that should be taken as encouragement to visit.
When you stroll beneath acres of beautiful tall trees which stretch as far as the eye can see, you feel the special magic energy unique to England in leafy midsummer.
This particular stretch of wooded land running down to the south coast was a favourite hunting ground of William the Conqueror nearly 1,000 years ago. The Crown has held on to it ever since, not only raiding it for timber - hence the large areas of open heathland - but preserving the historical practice of pasturing ponies, cattle and donkeys, who continue to roam the byways with all the freedom (and disregard for traffic) of sacred cows in India.
But driving slowly, indeed, meandering and on occasion getting quite lost, gazing at trees, enjoying the wildlife, pottering around marshy coastline and - given the quality of the food produced in this area - eating exceptionally well, is what the New Forest is all about.
No wonder that a Jewish couple - Ian Livingstone and his wife - fell so in love with the forest's flagship, the Chewton Glen hotel, that they bought the property.
No wonder, either, that the Rothschilds also fell under the forest's spell in 1919. Lionel de Rothschild bought the Exbury estate, at the eastern side of the forest, from the Mitford family and spent the rest of his life gathering plants from all over the world to enhance his own rhodedendron and azalea collections.
May is a sublime month to visit, when camellias and magnolias gradually give way to swathes of bluebells and the colourful shrubs which so ignited Rothschild's passion.
South West Trains (0845 6000 650, www.southwesttrains.co.uk) serves the Dorset coast from Waterloo via the New Forest, Bournemouth and Poole. Pebbles at Harvest House (01590 644 579; www.harvesthouse-newforest.co.uk. Chewton Glen (01425 275341; www.chewtonglen.com) offers double rooms from around £300 with breakfast; Lime Wood(023 8028 7171; www.limewoodhotel.co.uk)doubles from £180. Dorset Coastal Cottages (0800 980 4070; www.dorsetcoastalcottages.com)
It was not the only family passion; Lionel's son, Leopold, fulfilled the ambition of a lifetime by creating a steam railway on the property in 2001, and "Mr Leo", now in his 80s, can sometimes be seen, clad in overalls, driving the tiny train.
While those on board chug past the Summer Lane garden, not otherwise seen by visitors, a more comprehensive view of Exbury's highlights can be enjoyed on a golf buggy ride, which covers much of the 20-plus miles of pathways, and demonstrates why the gardens have been described as "Heaven with the gates open".
Not far from Exbury, is Beaulieu, most famous for its National Motor Museum, aimed squarely at petrol-heads. But the estate also has a fine, 16th-century mansion in Palace House.
Secret Agents were trained on the estate during the War before being dispatched to join the Resistance in Europe, and an exhibition shows how their "finishing school" operated in secrecy for four years.
Beaulieu has a noted hotel and restaurant in the Montagu Arms, and its pub annexe, Monty's, welcomes dogs in the bar and serves exem-
plary beer-battered fish and chips.
One of the nicest drives in the Forest is from Beaulieu to Brockenhurst, which - as well as being the most central point to arrive by train from Waterloo - is also the site of a fabulous farm shop, Setley Ridge.
This is a good place to buy award-winning Lyburn Farm cheeses, made on the edge of the forest, and a variety of produce bearing the official New Forest marque.
A good place to try the cheeses is at the end of a lovely drive to nowhere. Take the Ornamental Drive north of Brockenhurst via Bolderwood to Fritham, where the Royal Oak at the end of a dead-end street does a fine ploughman's and has a large, secure garden where children and dogs can roam.
Self-catering from farm shops is a great option for owners of small children and dogs, even if the poshest hotels are surprisingly pooch-and family-friendly.
A delightful contemporary "cottage" (although from the outside Pebbles looks like a modern terraced house) has been created by Amanda Hall of Harvest House b&b in Milford-on-Sea especially to cater for families with dogs. Bleached floorboards and nautical accessories make Pebbles a comfortable, shipshape home-from-home with a delightful eat-in kitchen overlooking a secure back garden with its own patio table to enjoy breakfast or lunch on a warm day. The walk around nearby Keyhaven, with its boats and long sea grasses, is a great appetitie-sharpener on a golden evening.
Milford is close to Chewton Glen, which despite its Relais & Chateaux membership, is friendly and unstuffy. Even self-caterers may want to indulge in a spa day here or a posh and pricey dinner, though staying over is the best way to enjoy Chewton, which is contemplating allowing dogs at its lodges in the grounds.
Canines are already welcome at the newest five-star hotel in the forest, which aims to give Chewton Glen a run for its money. Lime Wood is also very relaxed, with both an elegant restaurant and a chic, casual eatery; a spa is due to open in October.
Sitting, as it does, on the eastern doorstep of Bournemouth and Poole, the New Forest can be satisfyingly combined with a stay at the two resorts or on a stretch of Dorset's Jurassic Coast. Bournemouth has a new £50 million artificial reef which has brought surfing to the genteel resort, but the jewel in its crown is surely the Russell-Cotes Museum, an art nouveau house above the beach built by the owner of the Royal Bath Hotel as a present for his wife.
It remains stocked to the gills with Japanese metalwork, pre-Raphaelite paintings and some fine pieces of furniture, recalling Britain's love affair with the Orient.
The Royal Bath Hotel remains a good option in Bournemouth, along with a slew of four-star hotels and some new boutique lodgings, including the unusual but fun Chocolate Hotel.
Newish additions to the dining scene include the Edge, with its spectacular ocean views, and the jolly Print Room brasserie, which serves a spectacular knickerbocker glory.
Poole is a quaint, historic little harbour town now famous as the home of Britain's most costly real estate, which lines its Sandbanks peninsula. Eschewing the ritzy restaurants-with-a-view here, we lunched on exemplary fish and chips at Corkers on Poole quayside, which allows dogs on its verandah.
We walked off the batter and fries on Studland beach, reached from the tip of Sandbanks via a five-minute car ferry. A stroll on the clean white sands is a good prelude to the pretty drive which runs parallel to a coastline which has been declared a World Heritage Site for its prehistoric remains.
Detour to admire the view at Kimmeridge and the pretty little seaside village of Lulworth Cove. Be prepared to share the territory with fossil-hunters, though ammonites and dinosaur footprints are more likely to be discovered a little further down the coast to the west. Award-winning clotted cream with caramel fudge flavour New Forest ice-cream from the car-park kiosk was irresistibly delicious.
Dorset Coastal Cottages is a good source of lodgings - including those with dogs and children - and a good way to get to know pretty little villages such as Bere Regis, where we enjoyed a night at the modest School House.
Those who go by train on a family ticket to minimise their carbon footprint can rent a car locally and return to London from the pretty Saxon walled market town of Wareham or from the characterful county town of Dorchester, Thomas Hardy's birthplace.